Top site usability challenges (and tips on how to solve them)

Experts at IRWD dish on what irks consumers when navigating retail sites.

Katie Evans

E-retailers can’t close a sale if customers don’t navigate to their sites. That means a consumer arriving at an online merchant’s doorstep represents an accomplishment, and retailers should do everything they can to make buying easy and fast once the shopper passes through their virtual store doors. Bill Albert, executive director of design and usability for Bentley University, and Ryan Hennig, vice president of marketing for retail brand Miles Kimball, discussed common site usability problems and how retailers can fix or avoid them in their session, “Top 10 usability challenges—and how to solve them,” today at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference 2013 in Orlando.

First, consumers need to find easily what they are seeking, Albert said. And so retailers should consider offering a large and prominent search box at the top of the page that leaves plenty of room for search queries. Secondly, it’s a good practice to deliver clear search results based on the product category. “If I’m searching for pajamas, I don’t need a dry erase marker,” Albert said.

Albert also recommended retailers not jam too much information into results. He suggests offering photos and star ratings and then displaying tabs that visitors can click for more data or to dig deeper. He also added it’s a good idea for retailers and other companies to implement a search program that enables consumers to search by codes relevant to their category, such as ISBN numbers for booksellers or stock ticker symbols for a financial site—and not just by descriptive terms.

Albert pointed to Walgreen as a retailer that does a good job with search results by returning related items for a search term like contact lens. It shows consumers related products such as contact lens solution.

Albert also recommended retailers think like a shopper. For example, no matter how badly a merchant wants consumers to know that their particular petite skinny jeans are called “Ankle length slim fit denim” shoppers won’t likely search that way. “Avoid jargon and overly stylized terms,” Albert said.

Hennig also emphasized the importance of retailers knowing their audiences and trying to predict the way shoppers will explore their sites. For example, the average shopper at one of Miles Kimball’s brands, Easy Comforts, is 71 years old. Older shoppers visiting that e-commerce site often were introduced to the brand via catalog and feel comfortable shopping from catalog pages, and so Easy Comforts offers an option for visitors to search by catalog item number. Additionally, knowing that older adults might be looking for help with health ailments, its search algorithm presents products that can aid shoppers with medical issues when, for example, they enter the search term “arthritis.” EasyComforts.com also offers articles on common health conditions.

Heeding Albert’s earlier advice, Hennig said it’s important to understand how consumers label items. For example, he said elderly might call a “bra” an “undergarment,” and so its search program is built to understand such terms.

Once a shopper finds what she wants and is ready to buy, it is essential to make the buying process and quick and easy, the speakers said. That can include, for example, collecting as little personal information as possible. When retailers do ask shoppers to provide information, it’s a wise move to tell them why they need it. And, both agreed to avoid auto-selecting options for consumers—such as signing them up for e-mail lists or discount alerts.

Being clear about shipping fees is another smart move, the duo said. “Most people know they might have to pay shipping fees, so just be upfront and transparent about it,” Albert said. He suggested retailers not wait until the last page of checkout to display a total amount, including shipping fees.

And, when a consumer makes a mistake in entering information, it’s a good practice to be clear on how shoppers can fix it, the speakers said. “If they forgot to enter a city, say, “Enter City”, don’t just highlight the box, Hennig said. Albert added that including text explaining what is incorrect or missing is important for elderly consumers who might not see clearly or those who are color blind.

Retailers also shouldn’t be afraid of including a little extra handholding, the team noted. Hennig, for example, says there were times when his company’s accounting system was undergoing maintenance, preventing the e-commerce site from sending a confirmation e-mail with the order number for about 24 hours. That led customers to call customer service to see if their orders had gone through. Now, when that situation occurs he sends an immediate automatic e-mail telling the shopper that the site received the order and that she will get a full order confirmation in the next 24 hours.

Lastly, the pair recommended that merchants use past customer data to make it easier for return visitors to get what they want and complete their shopping trip, by, for example, providing easy access to order history. That especially comes in handy for repeat orders for items such as ink toner—a product that consumers don’t order often but that requires a specific SKU. And retailers can create a better shopping experience by doing other little things, such as remembering if a consumer typically likes her items shipped to a different address from her billing address, such as a work address.


Bentley University, Bill Albert, content management, customer service, e-commerce, Easy Comforts, IRWD 2013, merchandising and design, Miles Kimball, older shoppers, personal information, personalization, Ryan Hennig, site navigation, Walgreen